Demolishing lives: Israeli authorities’ “permit regime” targets Palestinian families in the occupied West Bank

Mar 25, 2024
Israeli forces demolished the Al-Rawagh family's home near Jericho in August 2023. (Photo: DCIP)

Ramallah, March 23, 2024—Israeli forces demolished more than 457 Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem in 2023, leaving a record 1,044 children without a safe home.

DCIP interviewed families in Jericho, Jenin and East Jerusalem whose houses were demolished by Israeli forces in 2023. These families collectively account for 37 individuals, including 15 children, forcibly displaced due to Israeli demolitions in the same year.

In the year 2023, the West Bank witnessed an increase in demolitions, with a total of 1,171 structures reduced to rubble. Among them, 457 were residential structures, forcing 2,261 individuals into displacement, including 1,044 children. DCIP gathered testimonies from 28 families whose homes were demolished, which severely affected their children. Within these 28 houses, 84 children were impacted, including 31 boys and 53 girls.

House demolitions are not a recent development but an enduring chapter imprinted into the region since 1967, when Israel annexed the West Bank and began its military occupation. Home demolitions are a trademark of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions reports that Israel has demolished more than 56,500 Palestinian homes since 1967. The consequences of such actions reverberate far beyond the physical rubble, as it intensifies human suffering, loss, and resilience.

Israeli forces enact several different categories of home demolitions in the occupied West Bank. Punitive demolitions are a form of punishment against one of the home’s residents, usually someone accused of, or is related to someone accused of, attacking or attempting to attack Israeli forces. Administrative demolitions stem from the lack of building permits, a predicament often intensified by the limited issuance of permits to Palestinians. Judicial demolitions are court-issued orders against inhabited homes or utilized structures. Military demolitions, constituting a significant 66 percent of total demolitions, occur during military operations, aiming to clear land, achieve strategic goals, or pursue extrajudicial executions. 

Al-Rawagh Family

Al-Rawagh family's house after demolition. (Photo: DCIP)

In Dyouk village near Jericho, on August 21, 2023, Shafiq Al-Rawagh was at the Jericho Hospital undergoing regular kidney dialysis when he received the news that his house had been demolished. 

At the beginning of the year, the family had received a demolition order from Israeli authorities on the pretext that it was built without a permit in Area C. 

“I owned and lived in the house for about 10 years,” explained Shafiq. Shafiq appointed a lawyer with the help of the Colonization and Wall Resistance Commission and the Jericho Governorate, which filed an appeal in response to the demolition order. 

“On June 15, the lawyer told me that the Jerusalem District Court issued a decision ending the demolition order until further notice, but I was ordered to pay a fine of 15,000 shekels, which I paid,” Shafiq explained. 

“Earlier on May 10, the house was raided by a group of soldiers, and a military bulldozer demolished a barn near the house, but they did not take any measurements of the house,” Shafiq continued. 

“I was shocked when I heard the news that the house had been demolished, but I could not do anything as I was having a dialysis session,” Shafiq told DCIP. “My wife and daughter returned to the village, and when I asked them about the house, my daughter Darin told me that it had been razed to the ground and everything inside the house was gone. She managed to recover two of her toys. We were not given a chance to evacuate, and all of our clothes, official documents, and some electrical appliances were left inside during the demolition.”

“Currently, my wife and daughter are with me in the hospital and there is no other place to stay. I do not know what I will do after I leave the hospital, and I do not know if there will be a possibility of rebuilding the house either,” Shafiq said. 

These demolition orders, along with additional regulations and procedures from Israeli authorities, create a coercive environment that forces Palestinians to leave their places of residence by threatening to destroy their homes and means of subsistence.

Area C of the West Bank is under complete Israeli control, and is subject to major restrictions on Palestinians residing in it. These restrictions hinder Palestinian development of the area, facilitate Israeli authorities’ exploitation of Area C’s resources, and support the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements.

The Oslo II Accords in 1995 divided the West Bank into three sections. The most populated parts of the West Bank, including major cities, are in Areas A and B, and are under the civil control of the Palestinian Authority. Area C, which includes most of the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea area as well as other rural areas, makes up 60 percent of the West Bank, is under Israeli civil control. Despite this agreement, Israel remains the Occupying Power under international humanitarian law and maintains ultimate control over the entirety of the occupied West Bank.

Virtually all of Area C is prohibited for Palestinian use, earmarked instead for the use of the Israeli military or under the jurisdiction of Israeli settlements, according to OCHA.

A child from Al-Rawagh family standing on top of his house's rubbles. (Photo: DCIP)

Mansour Family

Mansour Family’s House after demolition. (Photo: DCIP)

On July 3, 2023, at around 1:30 a.m., Israeli forces raided the entire city of Jenin, including the refugee camp in a massive incursion that lasted three days. Abdulkareem Mansour, head of the Mansour family and father of three children, one of whom is disabled, recounts how his house was demolished.

“We heard the sound of successive explosions in the camp, and we learned at that time that Israeli drones had launched airstrikes inside the camp,” explained Abdulkareem. “We also learned that the occupation forces were planning to carry out a wide-scale military operation in Jenin and its camp. To avoid any danger and because of the sounds of military drones buzzing in the sky, we all went downstairs to my brother’s apartment on the first floor.”

A few hours into the incursion, a military bulldozer began to destroy the camp’s roads, causing power outages all over the camp. 

“The bulldozer also destroyed many civilian vehicles that were parked on both sides of the road. Among those vehicles were my daughter Elia’s vehicle which we use to transport her from one place to another,” Abdulkareem told DCIP. 

“We were shocked by a shell that targeted the entrance and porch of the apartment,” Abdulkareem said. “The shell caused severe damage to the entrance and the rooms close to it. My children, mostly Elia [the disabled child], were shocked and afraid and started crying and wondering what would happen to them. After targeting the front door, a huge police dog was unleashed inside the apartment, causing more terror to my children. My brother tried to stop and grab the dog so that it would not attack my children, but he could not.”

Israeli forces entered their house, gathering women and children in one room and taking the men for interrogation in another room. 

“I was kept in the room for about five hours, after which I was allowed to use the bathroom,” Abdulkareem explained. 

After the interrogation, Abdulkareem saw his 17-year-old son handcuffed, blindfolded and lying on the floor on his stomach. Eventually, the occupation forces withdrew from the house. 

“Throughout that period, I did not know anything about my children, nor did we have anything to eat,” he explained. 

“After the occupation soldiers withdrew, my children were exhausted and were still shocked and traumatized. I was shocked by the extent of the destruction to our property and the contents of the apartments. In addition, two holes were made in the walls of the guest room in my apartment, through which the occupation soldiers were shooting at people,” Abdulkarem said.

That evening, Abdulkareem saw on social media that the Israeli authorities were calling many civilians in the camp and telling them to evacuate their homes immediately. 

“Once I heard that, we all left the house and headed to my daughter’s house in Burqin village, west of Jenin, and stayed there until the Israeli military operation in Jenin and its camp ended the following evening,” Abdulkareem explained. 

“When we returned to the house, we were shocked by the size of the cracks in the walls and ceiling. A team of UNRWA engineers came and recommended that the entire house be completely demolished as a result of the shelling and airstrikes,” he said.

One of the harshest forms of collective punishment Israel has been using since the occupation of the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is the demolition of homes. As part of this policy, Israel has destroyed hundreds of homes throughout the years, leaving thousands of Palestinians without a place to live.

According to Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, “the policy of punitive house demolition is, by definition, meant to harm people who have done nothing wrong and are suspected of no wrongdoing, but are related to Palestinians who attacked or attempted to attack Israeli civilians or security forces.”

Collective punishment is prohibited under binding international law. According to Article 4 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, “No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.” 

Totah Family

Totah family’s house after demolition. (Photo: DCIP)

In the heart of Wadi Al-Joz neighborhood in Jerusalem, on March 6, 2023, at 10 a.m. Israeli police forces and Jerusalem municipality workers stormed the Totah’s family building to implement a demolition order. 

"They ordered us to leave the apartments to execute the demolition order," recounts Yahya Totah, the head of the family. An hour later, three apartments belonging to the Totah family were reduced to rubble.

Yahya Totah reflects on the past 30 years, where they constructed six apartments on their land, each measuring around 150 square meters. 

"25 years ago, we were fined under the pretext that the apartments were built without permits from the Jerusalem municipality," he recalls. "The municipality kept turning us down under the pretext that the land was classified as public parks and not for construction.”

“In the previous years, three apartments out of six were demolished, yet we continued to pay the fines imposed on us, as well as following up the case in the court to see what would happen to the remaining apartment,” Yahya said. In February 2023, the court validated the demolition order for the remaining apartments, giving the Totah family a mere 21 days to evacuate their house.

“It is a great shock to lose your home," Yahya reflects on the aftermath that left families, predominantly children, scattered and seeking solace with parents and relatives.

Yahya’s children persistently ask about their lost home. 

"Always asking about their home, the reasons why it was destroyed, and whether there is a possibility to return," Yahya said. 

Losing your home has an outsized impact on children. “Beyond the initial trauma of losing their homes, the resulting dispossession and displacement cripple children’s sense of safety, leads to severe emotional distress, and leaves them isolated from their friends and communities,” Save the Children said in a report.

"The financial losses are so high that it is not easy to come up with a number," Yahya admits. The toll encompasses the value of the three demolished apartments, the lost furniture, and the fees incurred from lawyers and engineers. "It is a significant number, but I honestly cannot come up with an exact number," he said.

According to Aljazeera, as Israel claims to demolish houses of Palestinians due to the lack of a building permit, the Jerusalem Municipality denies at least 93 percent of all Palestinian building permit requests in Jerusalem city. 

Additionally, according to the UN's Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), that in East Jerusalem "a restrictive planning regime applied by Israel makes it virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits.”

Ja’afar Family

Ja’afar family’s house after self-demolition. (Photo: DCIP)

From the Old City in Jerusalem, Hamza Ja’afar shares his story that is marked by bureaucratic details ending with his house completely demolished. 

About eight years ago, Hamza’s father decided to expand their family house and build a second floor for Hamza as he was about to get married. 

“The second floor apartment was fully furnished and equipped, and I got married and lived there,” Hamza told DCIP. Five months after living on the second floor of the house, the Jerusalem municipality contacted the Ja’afar family and told them to come down for an interview. The family was informed that, “the second floor apartment was illegal and unlicensed, and therefore the file would be taken to court,” Hamza said.

In the first session of the court, a fine was issued to the family in the amount of 20,000 ILS, claiming that the family did not have a permit to build.  

Hoping to rectify the situation, the family hired a lawyer and an engineer. “We followed up the matter with engineers, the lawyer and the municipality in an attempt to obtain a building permit, but the Municipality always refused to issue us a permit under the guise that the area does not have building permits,” said Hamza. “Over this long period, we were trying to solve the issue but always hit a wall because of the municipality's refusal.”

Unfortunately, at the end of May 2023, the family was handed a demolition order by the court, and that the family should self-demolish the second floor, or the municipality would do it but the family would pay the demolition costs.

“The lawyer was shocked that a court session was held and issued such a decision, as we were not informed of such a session in advance. We sought to delay the implementation of the order, until I received a call from the Israeli police, in which I was clearly informed that if I did not self-demolish the apartment, the municipality would do it and charge me for it,” Hamza told DCIP. 

On August 30, 2023, Hamza decided to self-demolish his apartment. “I could not afford any major financial losses, and I knew that the municipality would charge me a lot if I did not do it myself.”

Many Palestinians living in Jerusalem, who are given demolition orders, are forced to execute the demolition themselves. Palestinian families undertake the demolitions themselves mainly to avoid facing the substantial expenses of either challenging demolition orders in court or paying the very high fines accumulated when Israeli authorities demolish the homes. Israeli authorities not only issue demolition orders, but also force Palestinians to pay the Israeli authorities for the demolition costs if they refuse to self-demolish their homes. 

“I am currently living with my wife and two daughters at my parents' 73 square meter house, and I am looking for a house to rent, but unfortunately rents in Jerusalem are extremely high. I hope that my family and I will settle down,” Hamza shared. 

Hamza has two daughters, ages one and three. He explained that they are not completely aware of what had happened yet. 

“Only 13 percent of East Jerusalem is zoned for Palestinian construction, much of which is already built up, while 35 percent has been allocated for Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law,” according to UN OCHA.

Article 27 of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) requires state parties to “recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.” Article 16 of the CRC prohibits states from subjecting a child to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family, home or correspondence. Despite ratifying the CRC in 1991, Israeli authorities persistently violate the rights of Palestinian children to have an adequate standard of living and be free of interference with their family and home. 

International humanitarian law prohibits an occupying power from demolishing homes and other property belonging to the protected population unless absolutely necessary for military operations.  The practice has been condemned by numerous United Nations agencies and international human rights organizations. Israel’s practice of demolishing and seizing Palestinian homes and property amounts to a grave violation of international humanitarian law and is a war crime under the Rome Statute.


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